By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, November 5, 2002 (ENS) - When global banking giant HSBC donated $50 million for conservation earlier this year, the dollar figure alone was newsworthy. But it is another part of the company's donation that hits on a trend conservationists hope could further the impact of the bank's sizeable donation.
In addition to earmarking $16 million for the Earthwatch Institute to train scientists in developing countries and fund conservation projects worldwide, HSBC offered something else - 2,000 of its employees.
Launched in February, Investing in Nature aims to protect 20,000 plant species from extinction, breathe life into some of the world's major rivers, and send scientists and HSBC fieldworkers around the world.
Lending labor to the cause, said Earthwatch director of corporate programs Shawn Fitzgibbons, truly expands the reach of the conservation program. The hope, he added, is that the participants take away a much greater understanding of the issues at hand, perhaps fostering more momentum for positive environmental changes within their company.
"It is a tremendous educational opportunity for the people who are participating," Fitzgibbons said. "In return, HSBC is developing a staff that understands, and has seen first hand, some of the environmental issues that are affecting the world and will affect the bank. It is positioning them to do well in the long term financially, socially and environmentally."
The 2,000 HSBC employees will create a network of "environmental ambassadors" within the bank, according to HSBC, and they will be given grants for local conservation projects when they return to their communities.
Earthwatch has similar partnerships with several other companies, including Starbucks, Mitsubishi International and the Royal Dutch Shell Company.
Meshing the financial goals of corporations with their support for conservation efforts might make some environmentalists nervous, but others find this view shortsighted.
Corporations are integral parts of all communities, whether you like it or not, according to Steve Volkers, director of corporate programs for The Nature Conservancy, who believes it is better to involve them rather than shun their support.
"We look at long term solutions to protect biodiversity, and we need partners to get this done," Volkers said. "No single organization can do this alone. The mutual interests become pretty clear, and it is pretty easy to find where the win/wins are and where they aren't."
Directly involving a firm's employees in the partnership, Volkers added, is a win-win for the company and a group like The Nature Conservancy because it gives employees "a connection between what their company has done and what it means for them."
Ideally, Volkers said, corporate partnerships help to provide a foundation for further efforts at sustainability within the sponsoring company. Volkers pointed to Mead, best known for its pencils, notebooks, and office forms, and its subsidiary Escanaba Paper Company as an example. These companies donated some $240,000 to The Nature Conservancy with the goal of protecting the sustainability of forests in Michigan's Upper Pennisula.
This agreement includes a memorandum of understanding that allows The Nature Conservancy to go on the companies' property and study the biodiversity trends and needs of the forest.
"You could argue that has as much, if not more, impact in protecting biodiversity rather than trying to put protection contingencies in place for threatened lands," Volkers said.
It is not just pressure from consumers, Volkers said, that is helping convince many companies of their environmental responsibility, it is also pressure to run a better and more sustainable business.
There are now financial measures such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI), which track the financial performance of a selected group of companies driven by the achievement of sustainability in terms of economic, environmental and social criteria.
By rewarding companies for positive environmental actions, and by showcasing the financial benefits that accrue as investors support share prices of the indexed companies, the DJSI gives sustainability a measurable economic value.
The corporate scandals of the past year could also have a positive impact on conservation and sustainability efforts, Fitzgibbons added, as companies look for new ways to reassure investors and consumers of a commitment to something beyond the bottom line.
In 1998 BP set a target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from a 1990 baseline and predicted it could reach the goal by 2010. The company met this target last year, and according to BP Group senior advisor Charles Nichols, BP did this at no net economic cost to the company.
"We're convinced there doesn't need to be such a harsh trade-off - between economic growth fuelled by energy consumption on the one hand, and a clean environment on the other," Nichols said in a speech in Washington, DC in July. "People expect successful companies to take on challenges and we have accepted this challenge."